1. Opinion

Florida needs a vocal environmental champion

Herschel Vinyard should take another look at his business cards to remind himself that he serves as Florida's secretary of environmental protection. As Citrus County's once-pristine Kings Bay struggles to overcome a severe algae bloom that threatens the area's economy and its native manatee habitat, Vinyard praises local efforts to clean up the mess but virtually ignores its primary cause: manmade pollution.

Kings Bay, with its once crystal-clear waters and charming manatee population, has been a lure for tourists for 40 years and became popular after Jacques Cousteau produced a film on the sea cows. But that success has extracted a heavy environmental price. Retail and residential development has led to increased nitrate levels from fertilizer as well as leaky sewer and septic tank runoff making its way into Kings Bay and surrounding springs. The result has created massive toxic algae blooms known as Lyngbya, which causes rashes, hives and respiratory problems in humans and endangers the manatee population.

After a taking a boat ride around Kings Bay, Vinyard recently lauded local efforts, most notably a Rotary Club project, to rake the algae off the water. That has had some temporary success. But the raking program deals only with the symptoms of the algae blooms, not its root causes. Vinyard has announced plans for a $1.1 million reclaimed-water project to cut local groundwater pumping to reduce treated sewage flowing into the aquifer. That's a good start. But it amounts to little more than putting a bandage on a gaping wound. Vinyard has not effectively addressed reducing the source of the algae blooms. The secretary needs to do more.

Vinyard should be an aggressive and proactive voice in protecting one of the state's treasured natural resources. He needs to be at the forefront in educating the public about the harmful effects of fertilizer runoff while addressing the unintended consequences of unfettered development on the environment.

When it comes to safeguarding Florida's environment, the public needs a vocal champion at DEP's helm, one as interested in addressing the sources of environmental damage as in efforts to clean it up afterward.